A Romp of Otters

For today’s post, here is a copy of my angsty email to Canadawrites — concerning the CBC’s Short Story Prize:

Hi!

I am a nobody from nowhere — well, literally, from Jessica Lake in Manitoba — but figuratively, I was right the first time.

As such; an n from n, I have skepticism for writing contests. I have entered quite a few as I prosecute my personal war on anonymity and have formed some impressions. If you care what an n from n believes, read on. If not, hit delete and it will not make any difference to me or the three otters in the lake in front of me.

Unrelated Question: Do three otters make a romp? Another time, perhaps.

Anyway, here in point form, is my romp:

1 – Unless a contest is starved for entries, the slightly better than average need not apply. Even though the bell curve is equally dominant in all writing contests, big contests will only select from two categories: the known (may also be, the “trending”) and the truly remarkable newbie. In that regard, big contests are really good at flushing out exceptional new voices. Way to go, CBC. This is a great thing. Seriously.

2 – Before I rush to my PayPal account and contribute to Mike Duffy’s first publically-funded pension (he has acquired several more since leaving CBC’s employ) I need to believe that (per 1, above) I am known; I am trending; or I am an exceptional but undiscovered new voice. This level of self-assessment is difficult. It is made doubly so, like a Duffy chin, by the need to also understand the field. I have some small idea of how my competitors stack up — I read a lot of stories in Canadian literary journals — but, I read them through my n from n lenses and I don’t read them all.

Being a collector of money, but no longer an efficient earner, I have to think hard about this. Besides, I already pay to support the CBC, but even the otters roll their eyes when I take the grouchy old man approach. So…disregard that last bit.

3 – The cousin factor. Right now, you, the person reading this, knows a “really good writer”. They are cousins, friends or friends of friends. Their blog and Facebook posts are brilliant; they say daring stuff; they are creative and mightily imaginative; they are unafraid. They really have a future. I am such a person to a few within my n from n spheres. But I am not that person to you or, most cogently, I am not that person to the judges. They have their own secret stars and they will remove the bushel basket not from my flame, but from that of their own brightly burning “discovery”.

So, por moi, it is the small, n from n type contests, where I can pay my dues. I’ll work the minors and when in the opinion of my readership I am ready for the big time; when I have a few more two-legged advocates and when I can claim more of a literary platform than having flipped the ball to Bergen in the low post a few times, I’ll give you a try.

allfornow,
Mitchell Toews
@mitchell_toews

 

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

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Au Vent Fou

I LOVE THE WIND.

I have come to love it because I am, and have been for twenty years, a windsurfer. Windsurfers pay attention to the wind, for obvious reasons. It becomes an obsession – I cannot pass by a pond of any size greater than a few board lengths and not mentally assess the quality of the chop, the direction and the relative strength and stability of the breeze blowing across its surface.

The wind is the engine and it is the determining factor in all decisions the sailor makes. Windsurfing, perhaps more than any other kind of sailing is closest to the wind. The sailor holds the wind in her hands, by proxy. Rudderless, the windsurfer depends on the intimate interplay between three, critical and infinitely variable elements: the craft on the surface of the water, the fin that imparts the energy from the sail, and the sail itself. Point of sail, mechanical differences, skill and luck play key roles too, but water, physics and wind make the stew; the other factors are more like flavourings.

Windsurfing – strangely counterintuitive despite its apparent simplicity – is difficult to learn and therefore, worthwhile just for that reason. For example – the greatest speed is found across the wind, on a reach, not downwind as beginners so often suppose.

There are many other rewarding factors too. One of the best being the look on the faces of boaters and other sailors who return to shore when the wind promises to be wicked. Windsurfers rig up and go out when that happens. We pass each other, coming and going – we matching the wind’s foolishness; them practicing moderation. I am grateful for being on the fool’s side of the equation and hope to continue to enjoy this cocky excess for as long as I can.

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In the normal course of non-windsurfing life, we generally don’t learn much about the wind. We suffer it and curse it, when it is ruinous. We savour it, when it offers cooling succor. We experience it without really understanding it. Where does it come from? How is it controlled? It is, above all, mysterious. The wind operates in anonymity; invisible except to the touch. The falling barometer can divine it but offers no real idea as to the exact time, duration, location or the strength with which the wind will blow.

The wind is notoriously unpredictable. It comes and goes – a steady wind is rare, gusts are the norm. Even in the mistrals and siroccos of the world, where breezes can be forecast with a degree of daily certainty, the wind reserves the right to variegate – if not with colours, for it is transparent, then with intensity and direction.

The Mayans worshipped several gods and one of them, named Huracán (remind you of something?) ruled the wind. Well, that is, it did its best to try. The wind had other ideas. In the Mayan tradition, it was truly wild; uncontrollable and without heed.

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Here are the things about the wind that I have learned by sailing in it, or that I believe to be true. The wind is sticky. In fact, the air that is propelled by the wind is the sticky bit. It sticks to itself – clinging to similar molecules like an evangelist to his pew. Temperature and humidity form into homogenous clumps that travel together. These clumps adhere to shorelines and points of land; they avoid dissimilar clumps like magnetic poles. This meniscus – or surface tension – characteristic seems to me, more than any other single factor, to define the physicality of the wind.

So, as I look out to windward, I watch the colour and texture of the waves: grey, wrinkly chop (like in the picture above, with the incredibly handsome – but also grey and wrinkled – sailor) foretells of a low, powerful gust – an even more accurate telltale than whitecaps. Context clues like trees, flags, and other sailing vessels help to enrich the description. Then the gust arrives and…nothing. The next time, with the identical context clues, …whoosh! A powerful gust.

Tumbling Tumbleweeds

My theory – more of a mental picture, really – to explain this inconsistency is that the wind is like a series of passing masses, travelling like giant, invisible tumbleweeds of moving air. There is a rowdy mob of them, randomly jostling, pairing and shouldering one another out of the way. They crowd forward on the water and despite manifesting signs like waves, chop, and flag-waving they sometimes bounce right over my sail – leaving me waiting; bereft of wind power. Their stickiness and propensity to cling to a surface and then suddenly release gives them this strange variability. Like a stampeding herd they race across the surface, sometimes jumping over, other times bulling their way through those objects they encounter on their unplotted path.

I think of these invisible tumbleweeds as gleeful and childlike; or like antelope or a flight of plover – unified and unscripted, a spontaneous choir in a rapturous choreography. This is of course influenced by my personal bliss at being part of this natural symphony; of being in the wind, and I am sure the wind is as uncaring and detached as the falling snow or a single flame in a raging fire. We assign emotion and judgement based on the outcomes and our perceptions.

My logical mind knows the wind is neither angry nor kind. It just is.

On a still, hot Spring afternoon, I raked leaves near the shore of our lake. Hearing a strange noise, I looked up towards the sound to see a swirling upwelling of leaves, branches and dust. It sounded like a highway tractor with a heavy trailer load, slowing down to stop, its brakes hissing.
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Suddenly, our neighbour’s under-construction boathouse floor was lifted off of its foundation and became a giant pinwheel of plywood, spinning in slow motion and spitting nails and splinters of wood like a gattling gun. It rose up to maybe twenty feet in the air and then dropped to land mightily on the flat calm of the water. A zephyr of water carried on,  jetting away like a motorboat across the surface and then abruptly lifting off and disappearing.
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All of this happened in under ten seconds and after the waterspout vanished, the air was once again perfectly still and the only noise was the lapping of the wavelets caused by the boathouse floor landing in the lake and a few leaves and twigs falling into the water.
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I stood stupefied, holding my rake up in mid-air, looking to see if anyone else was around – to corroborate what I had just witnessed.
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Hot air, bound and then releasing in an explosion of movement was to blame. The spin of the earth put English on the rising column of air as it rove down the wooded hill and picked up the thousands of pounds of fir plywood and 2X8s like so much kindling.
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“Au vent fou,” I said aloud into the quiet, dumbstruck, thinking of the name of the Quebec windsurfing shop where I had just bought some gear, online.

Think of us, we windsurfers, when you drive your car on a warm day, your window open. Let your flat palm play in the wind like a foil, lifting and dropping in the stream of air. Then imagine that feeling; that unseen, natural power and think what it would be like to have your whole body pulled along over the water, at speed, the board slapping impatiently at the surface and the wind – a careening, magical hoard rushing towards you, raucous and eager as hounds in the hunt.

There you have it, that is the wind, and logic be damned.

The Trump Patch

I THINK I NEED A BREAK. Too much Trump, too much despair. I never want the whole world to agree with me, except now. I want the world – every person – to disavow Trump. That’s not healthy.

It’s also a wee, tiny bit judgey. Besides, it’s an American thang, so wuddaIcare? (Yeah, right. Like when your neighbour gets a new stereo and plays Abracadabra by the Steve Miller Band all Sunday afternoon. It has an unavoidable spill-over effect.)

So, to ward off all this bad mo-jo, I’m going on the patch. The Trump patch (“May cause nausea and/or rectal discharge”.)

If he does not get elected, things will carry on in apple-pie order. By the way, isn’t that a great saying? I know, right? (As my sister likes to say, accompanied by a funny facial expression.) The apple pie saying is an idiom used by Joseph Conrad and more recently by a really good contemporary poet named Trish Hopkinson.

Anyway, back to Trump; he does not win, all is well. He goes away except for some parting deplorable remarks and I go off the patch. End of story.

And if Trump wins? Accch. I have no idiom for that. “Deportation order? Court order? Out of order?” Hey Joe! – little help here? (Mr. Conrad knows about darkness, after all.)

I think what I would do if Trump becomes POTUS is gather my wife and my daughters and all the strong women I know — it’s a lot; I have the best women — and I’d find a person with a really obnoxious pro-Trump t-shirt and I’d let him explain to my grand-daughter how this all works. The whole rape culture thing, I mean.

And maybe my grandma Toews could come back for that one meeting and give us some tips on what she did when her generation of women rose up and set aside a lot of these crazy notions, like, fifty years ago.

Grandma is not gonna be pleased – she already weeded that row of beets.

So, bye-bye CNN, I’m on the patch. Smell ya later, Stephen Colbert, I’m outta here. Alec Baldwin: have a blast. (Heyyyy, isn’t he also the scream-at-his-daughter-on-the-phone guy?) No matter, they will figure it out without me. As John Wayne used to say, “Exercise yer conscience, if ya got one!”

POST SCRIPT: Wait. There is good from this – maybe I need to stand up and take it like a . . . well, just take it. After all, I have abused my maleness. I admit it. You have too, male reader. So maybe THAT is the silver lining here. Reminding all us would-be figuratively lily white, testiclularly-endowed humans that we have pulled a few trump cards ourselves. Maybe this spray-tanned, comb-over windbag was placed here for a reason. 

 

 

Season of Humiliation

IN GRADE SCHOOL, I found a lovely book in the library called, “The Red Schoendienst Story” (Gene Schoor, Putnam, 1961). It was the biography of an American baseball player. But for me, it may just as well have been a biography — if not an endorsement — of the country.

From humble beginnings, suffering through adversity and against harsh odds, a Germantown, Il coal miner’s son became one of the finest players in the big leagues. It was a story of determination. It was also the story – more deeply – of right conduct and moral authority.

“The Red Schoendienst Story” led me to believe that if you provided “good service” (the approximate translation of the surname Schoendienst) you were liable to succeed. Just like America.

I loved the USA, our newly mighty neighbour about seventy miles to the south. At the very least, I loved the idea of the USA. I loved the Kennedys, and the space program, the Peace Corps and the grainy TV broadcasts that came to us from this nearby titan. Most of all, I loved baseball.

I remember our minor hockey trips to Warroad, MN, where the Marvin Window company dominated the town. The Marvin boys were star players and their business was impressive – an icon in our part of the world. Everything about America then seemed like these grinning, shouting Marvin boys, their slapshots echoing off the boards in the brand new arena with their name in ten-foot letters on the wall. It was a place where sleeves were rolled up; where you expected to succeed by working hard and enduring without complaining. It was a place where one of the Marvin offspring – a daughter – ending up running the show for more than twenty years.

Life was good of a day in the quiet north woods.

I grew and aged and kept my eye on America. Some of my innocence was shed as a consequence of life’s confusions. Likewise, events seemed to conspire to impede America from its apparent course. The Kennedys were killed; MLK was shot down; Vietnam revealed its vile nature – from My Lai to napalm. I met Vietnam veteran helicopter pilots at a fishing lodge in Northern Ontario and knew – in minutes – how the world and everything in it was ruined for them. Irredeemably frozen in a horrible place and time, these were young men, not much older than me at the time. I was still a boy, but they had skipped that.

I saw the humiliation of Nixon and could almost smell the foul rot. I was reminded of a dirty halloween prank – back when quite a few farms still had outhouses, kids would throw fishheads down the hole. Next spring, on a still, sunny day after the thaw, it was like a bomb had gone off – the stench seemed to bore holes into your skull. It was unbearable and yet you were somehow drawn closer, sniffing cautiously – to see if it was really  that bad.

As a young man, I cowered, clinging to my naive, “Black Like Me” sensibility, as I met salesmen and business connections from the US. After sizing me up (how would I react?) they would probe a little harder. “How’s your red n***er problem, up there? Hear they are quite an issue!”

Shocked, I’d taste the bile in my mouth and quietly change the topic, my morals offended but my fear – to lose the account or jeopardize my job – prevailing. Shame on me. And why was I shocked? I’d heard that and worse on my side of the border. Hatred is not exclusive.

Travelling for business to Charlotte, Atlanta and Dallas, I saw the ugliness all around me. And yet, it was always counterbalanced – and more – by an abundance of bright, determined, decent-minded people. They had that old Marvin fervor; the can-do attitude. This rigorous, well-intentioned segment of American society knew what was nonsense and what was not. They discerned as I did, they believed as I did; they acted with courage in the face of hatred and bigotry. At least – they did when they were with me. As I did when I was with them.

Life carried on and then stopped when the planes crashed. So much violence distilled into a few terrible hours. I suffered too through “Shock and Awe”, watching bombs fall, missing only Slim Pickens riding one of them down, with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea.

I grimaced with the world when the “Mission Accomplished” banner was unfurled.

Columbine and the long string of gun deaths, ongoing today, have hollowed me out.

In recent years, I’ve watched as we scurry from place to place listening not to Red Schoendienst turning two at Sportsman’s Park, but to athletes-cum-entertainers who earn a lifetime or more of Schoendienst or Musial or Kaline salaries in a single year – regardless of the value of their service. We daily revere the repugnant and the loud and the swaggering. The world’s population, heads bowed and thumbs twitching, are bedazzled by Entertainment Tonite emperors, who know not what they do.

Who cares about content or character, so long as we click on it.

Just another old man complaining. But then on Sunday night, I crept as near to the stench as I dared: the Presidential debate. What has happened to the America I loved? Teetering, has it now been shoved aside completely by an unapologetic vulgarian? A blabbering pipsqueak pandering to racial, gender and religious bias. A merchant of hatred. The caricature of a misogynist in sad, pinstriped splendor, strutting the stage.

Is he not exactly the blustering bully you pick out — the one you walk up to and challenge to make the pack back down?

Who will disavow him?

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Certainly, the America I loved was an idealism. It was a dream but it was based on truth. For me, a truth wrapped up in a invigorating, unassailable collage of people and things epitomized by baseball. It was Springsteen self-confidence and Dylan introspection. It was Kurt Vonnegut, Janis Joplin and Ken Kesey. America was awesome, before everything was awesome. Brash? Sure, sometimes, but big-hearted at the same time. Abiding and good.

I am hopeful that after this long election season of humiliation, the real America will come back. I doubt it, but I’ll keep watching, in case it does.

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016